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Evessa split with coach Blackwell

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Osaka Evessa have decided not to renew coach Ryan Blackwell’s contract, The Japan Times learned late Wednesday night.

Team manager Keisuke Hirose informed Blackwell of ownership’s decision on Wednesday. This came after Blackwell had detected Osaka general manager Hirotaro Nomamoto’s demeanor was different at the Final Four last weekend at Ariake Colosseum than it had been throughout his two years as head coach. It appeared the GM was uncomfortable being around him now, Blackwell said.

“We had a good relationship,” Blackwell said of Nomamoto in a telephone interview. “We had a meeting once a week.”

But ownership wanted to make a change. And the fact that Blackwell was a personal friend of former Evessa star Lynn Washington, recognized by many as the greatest player in league history, was the crux of the matter. Washington was arrested on March 13 for suspicion of smuggling a package containing marijuana into Japan. (Washington was exonerated of all charges after 18 days in custody by Osaka Prefectural Police, but his wife, Dana, has an ongoing court case after being arrested in February.)

Hirose told Blackwell that the GM’s message delivered to him by the owner was this: “Your relationship with Lynn doesn’t look good.”

“I was like, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ ” Blackwell said. “That was a separate issue.

“It’s the owner’s decision, and I understand that.”

In other words, Blackwell, 35, became the scapegoat.

Despite guiding the team to the Final Four in his first season at the helm after replacing three-time title-winning coach Kensaku Tennichi and a return trip to the playoffs this season — the Evessa (the Western Conference’s second seed) were eliminated on a last-second shot by Lee Cummard of the Kyoto Hannaryz in the mini-game tiebreaker in the Western Conference semifinals on May 13 — Blackwell was never given a vote of confidence by management.

Blackwell, a former Evessa and Sendai 89ers forward, guided Osaka to a 67-35 record over two seasons, including 35-17 in 2011-12. He played college ball under legendary coach Jim Boeheim at Syracuse University.

“We lost arguably the greatest player in league history and we still had a chance,” Blackwell said, referring to a trip to the Final Four.

Even so, he received silent treatment from team officials after the Evessa’s season-ending loss to Kyoto.

Despite waiting patiently for several days to meet with Nomamoto, Blackwell informed Hirose, who also served as his translator, that management hadn’t given him an answer about the 2012-13 season. The coach had plans to return to the United States, but wanted to know his status before the trip.

“If you don’t want me that’s fine, but let me know,” Blackwell said, repeating a message he had for team officials.

Blackwell wants to coach another bj-league team next season, but will keep his options open.

Reflecting on his first head coaching experience, the popular ex-All-Star forward said he was “absolutely certain” he’d done a solid job as the Evessa bench boss.

He said he’s learned to effectively mesh his coaching style with Japanese players, who were brought up in this game with the stereotypical authoritarian leader in the gym. But, Blackwell pointed out, “I try to teach these guys and be free and do things on their own.”

As for what type of coach the Evessa will bring in next, Blackwell thinks the pendulum may swing in the opposite direction.

Regarding his style, “maybe that’s not what they want here,” he said.

“It’s been a good year and a good experience,” he added, summing up his time in charge. “A lot of guys appreciated what I’ve done (as coach). . . . I received a lot of positive feedback from different people — coaching peers, former teammates and current players.”

Overall, Blackwell described the past two seasons as a good learning experience as a head coach. And now, he said, he’s ready to begin his search for the next coaching opportunity.